— A few days from now, over 27,000 runners will turn the streets of Boston into a blur of spandex and Timex during the 115th Boston Marathon. The 26.2-mile race is the world’s oldest annual marathon and is considered one of the toughest. Its starting line is in sleepy Hopkinton, Mass., where the course plunges sharply downhill, an unconventional opening mile that makes it easy to panic and start too fast.
Despite the marathon’s black diamond-caliber elevation drop, Boston’s biggest downhill skid belongs to the Red Sox, whose fan base is freaking out for the opposite reason. The 2011 preseason favorites have started 0-5 and are in their own race with the Houston Astros and Tampa Bay Rays to see who will be the last team to win. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays are on top of the AL East, something that rarely happens unless you list the teams alphabetically from A to Z or Z to A.
So far, the Sox have been swept by the Texas Rangers and lost to the perennially inconsistent Cleveland Indians twice. Carl Crawford and Jarrod Saltalamacchia have combined for one fewer strikeouts (11) than Boston’s starting pitchers (12). And the closest they’ve come to a W were those Arlington crowd shots of former president George Bush.
“That’s baseball, man,” David Ortiz said after a 3-1 loss to Cleveland on Tuesday. “You just gotta keep on playing. We’ve got 162 (games) so you can figure things out, because this is a hard game to play and you’ve got to go day by day. ... We need to wipe the mind off and come in with a new attitude.”
No matter how much Windex you use to wipe your mind, it’s hard to forget how awful the Sox have been. On the mound, their starting pitchers have an 8.61 ERA, a major-league worst.
And from the plate? Their team batting average is an anemic .190. Their collection of 31 total hits is among the worst in the majors, and the only offensive stat where they’re in the top five is grounding into double plays. If they keep swinging like this, the equipment manager should scrape the word “Slugger” off the barrels of their bats, sending them into the on-deck circle carrying Louisville Weak Dribblers to Third.
Ortiz is right, though. Baseball’s 162 games mean it’s 10 times longer than the NFL season and just under twice as long as a year in the NHL and NBA. So when they’ve only played 3 percent of their season, is it OK to start freaking out? How should you react to seeing the preseason favorites collect more L’s than a billboard for the Lowell Holiday Inn?
Don’t panic. That’s the prevailing advice from every columnist, sportscaster and drive-time DJ within the NESN viewing area. The number of articles that contain the phrase “don’t panic” show how close to panicking they really are; there are first-aid manuals that don’t tell you to stay calm as often as those dispatches from the 617 area code, so maybe someone should flip to the section on “how to stop the bleeding” instead.
The team itself should be used to this kind of overly emotional reaction. They’ve spent the past six seasons warming up by swinging the weight of the fans’ expectations. Everything changed in 2004, when the Sox ended their 86-year World Series drought, then doubled when they collected a second trophy three seasons later.
But those Sox aren’t these Sox. Only four players remain from the ’04 squad (David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, Kevin Youkilis and 93-year-old knuckleballer Tim Wakefield) and, with the exceptions of Pedroia and Youkilis, they’ve overhauled their infield since 2007. The rest of the roles are being filled by the most expensive collection of Sox in team history, with a total payroll of $161,762,475.
The Sox dropped $142 million on Crawford, the Rays speedster, and plan to drop approximately another $160 million on lumber slinger Adrian Gonzalez acquired from the Padres during the offseason, two moves that were supposed to make other teams openly weep when they saw Boston’s lineup sheet.
The night before the season opener, the Boston Herald christened them “THE BEST TEAM EVER.”
“We may very well be watching the greatest Red Sox team of all-time,” they wrote, a printed phrase that is starting to look as regrettably ridiculous as “Dewey Beats Truman” or “Wanted: Two Charlie Sheen Tickets”.
Instead, we’ve angrily tossed that paper with its unfair expectations and watched a team that’s off to its worst start since 1996. Those Sox started 0-5 en route to an 85-77 finish, good for third place in the AL East.
According to the stat-happy employees of the Elias Sports Bureau, since the current playoff format was established in 1995, only two teams to start 0-4 have made it to the postseason (Reds, 1995; Diamondbacks, 1999) and only the slow out-of-the-gate 1985 Cardinals made it to the World Series.
No team has won the Series after starting 0-4, though, to which the most determined of Sox fans will say, “Yeah, and no team had ever won the ALCS after falling to 0-3 either.”
But to blow the dust off another of Boston’s least favorite sports moments, Curt Schilling isn’t going to walk through that door. Manny Ramirez isn’t going to walk through that door. Instead, you get fifth starter Daisuke Matsuzaka, who pitched better than the other four starters but could hurt himself trying to open a bottle of Ibuprofen.
“It’s not a lot of fun,” manager Terry Francona said Tuesday night. “But I don’t think anyone’s going to feel sorry for us. We just have to come out and play the game right and things will work out. But if we feel sorry for ourselves, that won’t help.”
Francona's office at Fenway Park is about 4 1/2 miles from Heartbreak Hill, the most notorious climb on the Boston Marathon course. It’s way too early in the season for the Sox to have cracked even the most devout fan’s heart, but until the team figures out how to win, they’ll keep a nasty case of heartburn.